Learning poverty: Education crisis in India

The World Bank has already warned of a ‘learning crisis’ in global education; underprivileged students in developing countries are attending school, but many fail to learn basic life skills.
Learning poverty: Education crisis in India

Achyut Krishna


The World Bank has already warned of a 'learning crisis' in global education; underprivileged students in developing countries are attending school, but many fail to learn basic life skills. Consequently, as Pearson PLC (2018) explains, the global problem in education is not simply about provision, but also ensuring quality learning. UNESCO states that globally, over 617m students are failing to achieve minimum proficiency standards in mathematics and reading.

This case is very prominent in the Indian Context as the nation is undergoing it. According to The Economist, India has utterly failed to convert going to school into learning; roughly half of the fifth-grade students can't read a book intended for second-graders. Moreover, The Economist (2017C) also emphasizes the poor quality of Indian teachers; since 2011, an estimated 99% of would-be teachers have failed their pre-joining test. A primary research case study of India has been selected for two reasons. Firstly, most Indians use the concept of jugaad innovation in their daily lives, meaning India naturally fits the aim of this investigation. Secondly, India is the earth's largest education system. Therefore, it can be argued that India sits at the 'heart' of the 'learning crisis'. Tackling India first should make it easier to deal with smaller, less complex education systems.

Current numbers:

According to a report by the Ministry of Education titled- Educational Statistics" At a glance- states that the Gross Enrolment Ratio at the elementary level (Classes I-VIII) has been consistently high, at around 97%. This indicates that almost every Indian child is going to school. Despite this, students don't seem to be learning anything in school at all. Only 44.2% of all students in government schools in Class V in India are able to read a Class II text, as per ASER report on School Education. The situation is worse for numeracy: only 22.7% of all students in government schools in Class V are able to do division. India has been in the midst of a learning crisis for a long time now.

The budget speech this year focused on how 15,000 schools across the country will be strengthened qualitatively and will serve as exemplary schools. Among other schemes, a national professional standard for teachers will be developed. But had no mention of how this would help solve the basic problem of children not being able to read or perform division.

None of the other schemes announced – such as setting up of 100 new Sainik Schools in partnership with NGOs and 750 Eklavya Model Residential Schools in tribal areas – address this issue either. It is no doubt important to focus on improving access to education and infrastructure. But when children evidently don't seem to be learning much in schools, it is important for budgetary allocation to factor learning outcomes as well.

According to the State of the Sector report on Private Schools in India by Central Square Foundation (CSF)- "Of all students in India today, 47.5% go to private schools in India. Those numbers are growing rapidly. Rural private school enrolments have increased from 4% in 1993 to almost 27% in 2018." The emergence of private schools is a serious indicator that parents are dissatisfied with the quality of education in government schools and are choosing private schools, despite the significant cost.

This dividend has also been witnessed in the learning outcomes. Of all children in private schools in India in class V, 65.1% are able to read a class II text, as compared to the 44.2% in government schools, according to the non-governmental organization Pratham's Annual Status of Education Report. Moreover, of all children in private schools in India in Class V, 39.8% are able to do division as compared to the 22.7% of children of the same age in government schools.

Regional variations:

A recent survey in 16 states and union territories suggests that there has been a catastrophic slide in literacy among children from poor and marginalized sections. However, there seems to be no plan to help them. This was brought out by the findings of the School Children's Online and Offline Learning Survey (SCHOOL survey) indicated the complete opposite. The survey was conducted in August across 16 states and union territories. It focused on relatively deprived hamlets and bases (slums), where children generally attend government schools.

"Amongst children in grade 3, only 25% were able to read more than a few words – an age where they should be able to read fluently in their mother tongue. This is way below what we would expect in normal times, based on earlier surveys. All the indicators are a lot worse for Dalit and Adivasi children compared to other children, even among underprivileged communities. The lockout for these children has amplified already extreme inequalities."

Several things, as the survey found. It points out that in rural areas; only 8% of the children enrolled in primary and upper-primary classes were studying online regularly. It was not that the children did not have a smartphone in their homes at all – half of the rural children live in households with a smartphone. But there are so many other hurdles that prevent online learning – children need connectivity, they need money for recharging phones, the school has to send online material and so on.

The survey has also found that among children within the sample who were studying in private schools before the lockout, 26% have now switched to government schools for lack of funds. The transition from private to public schools has been underway because of the costs involved with private schooling. That magnifies the challenge of reopening schools since it means that public school classrooms will be dealing with a larger number of children.

This observance has also been recorded in the 16th Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2021 (Rural) was released by the Pratham foundation on Wednesday, November 17. The report primarily emphasizes the schooling status of children in the 5-16 age group across rural India and their ability to do basic reading and arithmetic tasks. According to the report, there has been an overall increase in the proportion of children enrolled in government schools between 2018 and 2020 i.e. from 64.3% to 65.8%. However, in the year 2021, the enrollment suddenly went up to 70.3%.

The report pointed out that the maximum increase in government schools has been registered in Uttar Pradesh (13.2 per cent), followed by Kerala (11.9 per cent). Rajasthan (9.4 per cent), Maharashtra (9.2 per cent), Karnataka (8.3 per cent), Tamil Nadu (9.6 per cent), Andhra Pradesh (8.4 per cent), Telangana (3.7 per cent), Bihar (2.8 per cent), West Bengal (3.9 per cent) and Jharkhand (2.5 per cent) are among the states that have reported an increase in government school enrolments.

Global learning crisis: A comparative study of low income and high-income countries

According to estimates from UNESCO, around 1.6 billion students across more than 190 countries were forced out of school at the peak of the crisis. In 2019, the World Bank estimated that 53% of children finishing primary school in low-and middle-income countries (and as many as 80% in some low-income countries) still could not read and understand a simple text. In light of these findings, the bank introduced a new concept: "learning poverty." Along the same lines, the 2018 World Development Report found that in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, three-quarters of third-grade students could not read a basic sentence such as "The name of the dog is Puppy." In rural India, three-quarters of third-grade students could not solve a two-digit subtraction problem such as 46 – 17.

The main findings of these reports, however, state the common ground. The ground of the learning crisis in the global context is mostly concentrated in the third world countries as they clearly state that the learning crisis is global but concentrated in low-income regions.

This learning crisis impacts children and adolescents on every continent. Of the 617 million children and adolescents not learning, almost half live in the G20. Breaking it down by region, the data shows that Central and Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are bearing the brunt of the learning crisis. About 80% of adolescents in school (roughly between the ages of 12 and 14) are unable to read at minimum proficiency levels.

As these young teens prepare for life and the job market, they are at a marked disadvantage over their peers who are able to gain these skills in school. Their countries also suffer a huge loss of talent of young people, who will be ill-equipped to deal with the challenges posed by technological changes in areas such as robotics and artificial intelligence.

Moreover, this year's Report, Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all, warns that without attracting and adequately training enough teachers the learning crisis will last for several generations and hit the disadvantaged hardest. In many sub-Saharan African countries, for example, the report reveals that only one in five of the poorest children reach the end of primary school having learnt the basics in reading and mathematics.

But the learning crisis does not only affect the poor. Wealthier regions such as North America and Europe are similarly impacted. A sizeable proportion (almost 20%) of adolescents in school lacks the basic skill sets to get ahead.

Furthermore, UNICEF has conducted a benefit-incidence analysis, using comparable data from 42 countries, including 23 low and middle-income countries and 19 high-income countries. Here, it states while the United States had zero days of full national school closures, partial school closures continued for more than 400 instructional days. More than seven in ten countries, home to 91 per cent of the global school-age population, closed schools fully or partially for more than four full months; a majority of these children are in low and middle-income countries with low learning outcomes before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Norway, schools remained open for students with disabilities, students whose parents were essential workers, and students facing risks at home, such as violence. Uruguay introduced a phased reopening approach prioritizing rural communities, vulnerable student populations, and early childhood in the earliest stages of reopening. Other countries, like Burkina Faso, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, prioritized reopening schools for exam classes. Still, any reopening is better than continued closures. Evidence from Brazil suggests that opening schools, even partially, resulted in lower learning loss for middle and high school students than when schools remained fully closed.

Here, we could also observe Variations on the basis of Gender and Region. According to the Global Learning Crisis report by UNICEF, in West and Central Africa, broadcast media was central in remote learning policies, yet only 26 per cent of households in rural areas own a television compared to 73 per cent of households in urban areas.100 In South Asia, on average 50 per cent of households own a television, but urban and rural divides in nearly all countries were larger than 20 percentage points. Despite their widespread prevalence globally, mobile phones were the second-least-reported modality used by ministries of education to deliver remote learning, signalling a mismatch of available infrastructure to countries' remote learning policies. Moreover, only 33 per cent of low-income countries indicated they had taken measures to support learners with disabilities.

In some countries, gender was a driver of inequality. Girls often have reduced access to devices and the internet and have lower ICT knowledge and skills, limiting their ability to access and benefit from remote learning. In Kenya, 74 per cent of adolescent girls reported household chores distracted them from remote learning. However, emerging evidence from Ethiopia, India, and Vietnam suggest there are no significant differences in the remote schooling experiences of boys and girls and that the socio-economic status of the household was more likely to drive unequal remote learning experiences. In Peru, male students were less likely than female students to engage in distance learning.

Besides, there is always a scar for the probability of returning to school post-crisis. In the year after the Ebola crisis, 27 per cent of Liberian secondary school students did not return to formal education. In Ghana, where national enrollment was high at 97 per cent, 60 per cent of the dropouts were girls. And, this may pile up the burden of a learning crisis and make it more distressful for the generations to come.

The way forward:

The learning crisis puts a serious dent in the abilities of countries and job-seekers to seize the benefits of technological change. Lack of access to school means that there are children who will never have the chance to gain foundational skills that stem from literacy and numeracy, schools are failing to retain children who enrol, leading to high dropout rates and insufficient learning. Nevertheless, poor quality of education and classroom practices are leaving millions of children and adolescents without the skills to compete in the global economy.

The role of education in skill development is particularly relevant today. Governments around the world have already been taking a hard look at the subject as part of their commitments to sustainable development goals. In India, the new National Education Policy, the first in decades, found only passing mention in the Budget. The policy emphasizes early learning for all children, a revamp of the curriculum to focus on foundational numeracy and literacy in early years, a move away from rote learning and a new assessment system that measures skills and learning rather than memorization. This would need more spending, along with increased spending and focus on learning outcomes. Otherwise, as observed, a 6.1% drop in the Budget and a lack of focus on learning outcomes keeps India on the path of an entire generation having unequal opportunities and prevailed learning crisis for decades.

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